Who’s your local taxi operator? Many of us, particularly those who live outside of major cities, probably wouldn’t have a clue. But that’s where YourTaximeter, a new web and mobile application developed by Tom Macmichael and his team comes in. Tom’s taken a year out of his Undergraduate degree to work on his project and he’s hoping to become the number one place for booking taxis in the UK. We met up for a chat about entrepreneurship, his startup and how he’s been getting on.
Tom’s suggested that we meet at BrewDog, itself a successful startup, on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. It’s a street that I don’t often visit — it has, for me, a reputation as home of the night clubs and dark alleyways — but on this occasion, the sun is shining and it is quite pleasant. Tom’s beat me to it and has a bizarre looking beer in hand by the time I walk in. I dump my belongings in the elevated booth he’s chosen to sit in and grab myself a beer — it’s the only one which sounds vaguely normal of a long list of peculiar home brews.
“So,” I say, sitting down, “how would you define an entrepreneur?” I would normally reserve this question for a minute or two, I mean — I hardly know Tom — but my dissertation on student entrepreneurs is on my mind. “I sort of fell into being an entrepreneur,” Tom tells me. “I never really called myself an entrepreneur and then this website that I made seemed to be getting some traction and, I don’t know, I thought it would be quite cool to work full time on that and see where it went. I don’t think you need to be running anything that actually makes money to be an entrepreneur. You just need to like making things which other people like to use.” Tom tells me that, before taking a year out of university, he considered his work as more of a side-project but, now that it is a full-time occupation for him, he’s made the transition to become an entrepreneur. “Other people might have defined me as an entrepreneur earlier but, yeah,” he says, his voice fading away.
“Would you encourage other students to take time out of university and focus on entrepreneurship?” I ask him. “Yes, definitely,” he says without hesitation. “Because I was trying to run the site alongside university, I really struggled with my studies. I spent hours working on the site and really prioritised it over university work and so,” he pauses briefly, “I didn’t fail — well I did fail one exam — but I didn’t do terribly well. I didn’t want to enter third year and muck up my degree for the sake of a company that might not succeed.” He sees taking a year out of university as a safety net. On the one hand, his company may succeed and he has the opportunity to spend his time on the project but, on the other hand, should it fail, he can return to university and pick up where he left off. “It’s amazing that the university allow you to do it,” he says. “They saw the benefit to it and the relevance of the project to my degree so were happy for me to do it.”
We move on to talk about YourTaximeter, Tom’s startup which provides the ability to book taxis using either a web or phone application. “Tell me, how does it differ from all the other taxi booking and fare-finding websites out there?” I ask Tom. “Everyone’s heard of Uber or Halo who work in London and cities around the world, recruiting their own drivers and letting the public book straight from their phones. We’ve taken the approach that there are 16,000 companies out there already, why not send them the bookings? They’ve been doing this for years. We’re not going to hire their drivers — we’re going to hire them,” Tom says. “We’ve focused on great design and a modern interface which we believe is leagues ahead of our competitors who do online booking as well.” Tom concludes that they are not the next Uber or Halo but, rather than sending the bookings to the drivers themselves, they’ll just redirect customers’ bookings to the relevant taxi firms, saving them the hassle of managing a fleet of taxis and drivers while earning a commission from each booking they direct elsewhere.
“We’ve focused on great design and a modern interface which we believe is leagues ahead of our competitors who do online booking as well.”
I’m still slightly confused as to how the system works — is he providing a cost comparison tool or does the application simply pick a company with whom to book the taxi? “Effectively, any company can register to use the service and when a customer books a taxi, they can see the different companies and the prices they’ll offer for the journey,” Tom tells me. “It enables the smaller companies to compete with the bigger ones and it is all down to the customer to pick who they use based on ratings, price, etc.”
“So what inspired you to start Your Taximeter?” I ask. “At home, I live in a small village and none of my friends live nearby so I always used to have to take a taxi to see people,” he says. This is striking home for me already but, unlike Tom, I just didn’t bother and opted for the school bus the next day instead. “Basically, I found that the Hackney Carriage rates are regulated by each council in the UK and so I built a website that worked out the rates for my council. It was just for me but eventually some friends said that I should open it up to others. So I published it and, well, let it be and found that others wanted to use it too.” It’s a strange marketing strategy — in fact, Tom tells me that they don’t do any marketing and that their growth has, until now, been completely organic — but it has worked for them and, now a team of four computer science undergraduates, the application is being used by around 40,000–50,000 users online (he won’t tell me his iPhone and Android statistics, other than to say that they’re in the thousands).
I’ve met Tom before at the launch event for Enterprise Campus — a postgraduate student startup support initiative — but he might as well be a complete stranger to me so I ask him about his own inspiration. “For me, it’s always been Spotify and Daniel Eck. They’re just such an inspirational company. Too many European startups sell out to the U.S. but they’re not going to do that. It’s just an amazing company with great foundations and beliefs. When I think of startups, I think of Spotify.”
“So what piece of advice has helped you the most?” I ask Tom. “Ooh, that’s tricky,” he says, thinking for a few moments. “I think it would have to be the importance of hiring people who are just as inspired and motivated as you are. If you don’t have a team who are willing to put in the effort, your startup isn’t going to go anywhere.”
“If you don’t have a team who are willing to put in the effort, your startup isn’t going to go anywhere.”
I take a sip of my beer and am not convinced. Maybe I should have opted for the 5AM Red Ale that Tom has sat in front of him. “So why are we sat here in Brew Dog?” I ask him. “We don’t have a permanent space at the moment so we often come here to brainstorm our ideas and just relax a bit.” It is, Tom agrees, their team space and somewhere where they feel like they’re working. “We’re probably not working, but you know…” he concedes with a chuckle. He recommends a Punk IPA for mine or your next visit.
I’m curious as to what Tom thinks of public transport given his startups’ interest in taxi usage. “We’ve seen a huge push in the use and benefits of public transport since the millennium. Would you see yourselves as advocating the opposite?” I ask him. “I think there’s room for both, definitely. Certain areas — especially small towns and villages — don’t really offer the option of using public transport late at night. In cities, public transport is very good but there will always be room for taxis on top of that. Use both.” So would Tom see his application as being geared more towards rural users then? “Because we’ve never done any marketing — and marketing normally targets cities — we’ve found that our users seem to come from anywhere. We don’t see users coming from one area in particular, they come from across the country.” There’s a slight backstory to this though: Tom’s product doesn’t actually allow you to book taxis in most major cities yet. So far, it’ll display pricing and taxi company telephone numbers for any area but taxi booking is only enabled in a few areas where operators have signed up for it. “So where could you use the product to book a taxi?” I ask, knowing full well that Edinburgh isn’t one of the cities on offer. “It’s a fair question. So far, there’s around twenty-five areas in which you can book. Maidstone, St. Andrews, Helensburgh,” he says, the last word sounding vaguely Swedish. The funny thing is, Tom doesn’t actually know where some of these places are, but he doesn’t appear concerned about this. And can we expect Edinburgh to come online soon? “Yes, we’re definitely making that a priority. We’re just trying to iron out some differences in opinion between us and the taxi operators about pricing, etc,” he tells me.
We move away from the product side of things again to focus on Tom’s experience of running a business. Given that he’s recruited a team of ‘techies’, how has he acquired the knowledge to go about setting up his business? “I often think, when I’m doing the business side of things, that it would be so much easier if I had someone from a business background. It has been difficult in that respect because we are all quite ‘tech-focused’,” he says. “We know how to make a great product, but we don’t necessarily know how to get it in the hands of everyone. We’ve had to learn that and we definitely need to work on it. But there’s a lot of good articles you can read online — just Google it.” He has also made use of advisors like LAUNCH.ed — “it’s nice to know there are people you can talk to about startups who care,” he notes — and plans to up his usage in the coming months, however Tom points out that the University and others could do a lot more to support undergraduate business ventures as well as others’. “If you look at the American tech startups of recent years, a lot of them have been done by undergraduates and I think that they’re treated a lot more seriously over there.”
“If you look at the American tech startups of recent years, a lot of them have been done by undergraduates and I think that they’re treated a lot more seriously over there.”
So what does the future hold? Tom’s told me that he wants to diversify from the likes of Uber and Halo, drawing on their student status and the importance of small businesses to them. “Will you be expanding beyond the UK?” I ask. “We could open across Europe tomorrow,” he tells me with a great deal of confidence. “It really wouldn’t take us very long.” But that isn’t his plan. Tom’s convinced that users are more interested in a product which is built well than one they can use anywhere with bugs. “Global expansion would be nice, but it just isn’t the plan at the moment,” he says. “We want to get the UK right first and make sure that we’re comfortable expanding to other countries before we actually do it.”
I reach my final question. I’m curious to find out what Tom, who is clearly an application developer at heart, thinks is the future for technology and apps. “Health apps — they are definitely the future. I’m always going on at my flatmates about things like Argus, Calorie Counters, etc. I think it’s really cool that we can develop apps that seamlessly integrate with people’s lives in this way,” he says. “But what about people’s concerns surrounding data privacy? How would you respond to that concern?” I ask. “I’m one of those people who likes to be able to see the data if it exists. I go to bed every night, my iPhone charged. Why wouldn’t I want to track that data about my sleep? As long as companies are transparent about whether they’re storing that information or not, then I’m okay with that,” Tom says. “The research impact these applications can have is truly amazing. Many apps allow you to opt-in to their own crowd-sourced research and the results are staggering,” he says. Perhaps Tom should go and work for Apple, who’s recent ResearchKit launch on the iPhone has already taken the medical research industry by storm.
We leave it at that, Tom’s faced nearly an hour of constant questioning so it is no surprise that his beer is still sat in front of him, half full. I pack my iPad away and we consume the rest of our beers over a more friendly chat. He picks my brains about the interview series so far, some interesting results of which I published last week, and pitches a new company name to me (we agree that he might want to stick with the one he’s got) before donning our coats and heading out into the sunshine with Tom headed to yet another meeting.